Why We Hired User Research So Early

Kat Li
Kat Li
Feb 14, 2017 · 5 min read
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User Research can help explain the unexpected of user behavior.

The company where I work, Digit, is small (we’re 21-people strong today). Usually when I tell people that we’re already heavily investing in user research, they’re surprised. It’s still early days, but I fundamentally believe that this was the right call for us and I’d like to explain why.

Since hiring a full-time user researcher, we’ve been in constant contact with our users, on the order of 5–10 unique people per week.

Through user research, we’ve learned what goes through people’s heads, including the various factors and considerations, when they decide our product or feature isn’t useful for them. In one recent beta, we uncovered the primary points of confusion (and thus reasons for not retaining) through interviews.

We’ve also used qualitative user research to very quickly learn and iterate on a/b tests, before the data patterns would have been visible. In one experiment, we found out that people weren’t reading the main language change on the signup page we were testing through interviews, causing us to quickly iterate on the design before beginning the next cycle of testing.

Moreover, we’ve learned not only about how people think about our product, but also about how they think about their finances at a high level. This helped shape our product roadmap by stress testing the core assumptions and prioritization decisions that went into making it.

Data analytics provides half the story, finding trends and patterns that users themselves might not be aware of. User research is the other side of the coin: digging deep into single datapoints (i.e. people) to understand the why behind the behavior patterns and actions observed.

Three Signs You Should Bring in Full-Time User Research

If all of that sounds intriguing to you, but you’re not sure if it makes sense for your product, here are three things to consider:

  1. Do you have a userbase not (or no longer) well-represented by your product and engineering team? In consumer tech, it’s really easy to build the product that you want, ignoring the needs of your target userbase. During beta and after launch, many of your early users will likely family, friends, and friend of friends, thereby biasing your userbase to be similar to you. As your product matures and becomes more mainstream, you may begin to be working for people who no longer look or think like you do. At that point, you must prioritize constant contact with your users. For Digit, this was especially important because we’re trying to build a personal finance product that serves the needs of millions of Americans, not just urban city dwellers who work in the tech industry.
  2. Are you building something completely new, something that’s never existed before? The crazier your idea, the more you need to keep close tabs on how your product and user experience are being perceived. For example, Digit, i.e. a bot who sends you messages and tucks away pockets of money out of sight, doesn’t have any clear precedent in terms of product, nor are there any industry-wide best practices pre-established. As we expand what we do for our users, we consider it vital to talk to different people, outside of customer service, every week.
  3. Are you ready and in a good place to actually start incorporating user research insights? You should not be still looking for product-market fit or building v1. People generally don’t like doing work just because it’s interesting. Just as you shouldn’t ask data analysts to pull data or make dashboards out of idle curiosity—you should know what decisions user research insights will inform and be ready for it to advance your product thinking. In Digit’s case, we waited until not only after we had found real product-market fit, but also until after we had done setting some medium-term roadmapping. This gave us a clear picture of the sorts of questions we already had with regards to user behavior and thinking and aligned the whole team in terms of what to expect from user research.

Side note: if you’re interested in getting into user research yourself, you should check out my colleague’s post about her transition into UR.

How to Make It Successful

If you got through the last section and now feel fairly convinced that it’s the right time for you too to bring in user research, it’s time to start thinking about how to build the right structure to allow user research to be successful.

  1. Evaluate the success of user research, as a function, by measuring the impact it has on product design & development. Sometimes this manifests itself in easy-to-point-to new features or improvements, but impact can also be found in: spotting trends early on before they come out in the data, uncovering unique and unfamiliar insights, testing assumptions you plan to build off of, and constructing a more complete understanding of your users’ jobs-to-be-done or personas. Effectively, you should see user research as successful when it is actually shaping product decisions and strategy.
  2. Define the points of interest, or where your team can benefit the most from user research. At Digit, we’ve identified 4 specific places we get the most value from user research today: 1) in the early exploratory part of identifying new potential problem spaces, 2) to validate new ideas through design sprints and user testing before writing a line of code 3) in the assessment of currently running betas to help determine, alongside data analysis, if a feature is ready for launch, needs more work, or should be killed, and 4) constantly gathering new insights for existing products and the people using them.

If it’s the right time to hire user research and you get these two things right, then all that’s left is finding the right person to start your user research team. But that sounds like a post for another day :)

Teasers aside, I’d love to hear what questions and thoughts anyone at similar size/stage companies have. Are you interested in hearing about the tactical ways we made user research work for us? Do you want to know what we’ve considered to be the most successful user research work so far? Let me know in the comments or find me on Twitter.

Also, I should mention, we’re currently hiring a Product Designer and a Product Scientist to be a part of our core Savings team. Both roles will work closely with myself, as well as with user research, to help us continue building experiences to save hundreds of millions of dollars for our users.

Update: we’re currently looking to bring on our second user researcher! Details here: https://angel.co/digit-co/jobs/167803-user-researcher

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